Why You’re Hooked on Email – And Five Ways to Stop


Email. We love it – for speedy, easy, free communication around the world. And we hate it – for eating up more and more of our time.

If you’ve ever spent your whole workday dealing with emails, or come back from a vacation to find hundreds or even thousands of messages waiting, you’ll know what a drag email can be.

You’ve probably come across plenty of tips and tricks for managing your email better: folders, labels, no emails before 11am, batch processing, keeping your inbox closed while you’re working, etc.
All of that can help. But you might still be checking your email more frequently than you’d ideally like. To fix the problem, you need to figure out the cause. These are five popular ones. Any of them sound familiar to you?

Reason #1: You Open Your Email by Habit

I used to work in technical support. The first thing I did when I got into the office was load up my email. It quickly became a habit – one which it was hard to shake when I started freelancing.

For quite a number of us, checking email is simply a habit, one which we don’t even consciously think about. We switch on the computer and load up Outlook or Gmail – it’s as automatic as making a cup of coffee.

If you’ve ever found yourself staring at your inbox, thinking, hang on a minute, I didn’t mean to open that, then email’s become a habit.

How to Stop: I favor a two-pronged approach. First, interrupt the habit by making it harder to open your email. Remove the icon from your desktop. Take the bookmark off your browser.

Second, put a new habit in place of email. If you always check email first thing, get into the habit of writing a quick plan for your day instead, or spending ten minutes reading something work-related.

Reason #2: You Don’t Know What to Do Next
When you finish one task, you might find yourself opening up your inbox to see what’s waiting. You’re checking email because you’re not sure what to do next – and emails provide a convenient excuse not to think.

Emails provide external input into our work day, and it’s often tempting to turn to them when we’re feeling uncertain. This might be due to a lack of work, or due to too much work and being unable to prioritize.

How to Stop: Keep a to-do list, and batch smallish tasks together – that way, you can move smoothly from one to the next.

Reason #3: You’re Expecting Something Urgent

How often have you logged into your email to see if Joe Bloggs has sent something urgent? Whatever your job, it’s likely that there will be times when requests come in by email which need dealing with quickly. They could be bug reports in tech support, confirmation requests for piece of work you’ve outsourced, and so on.

The problem is, even if that urgent email isn’t there, you’ll often find yourself staying in your inbox. You’ll see some other – less urgent – messages which you decide to sort out. And you’ll be constantly interrupting your other work by checking your email for the urgent messages.

How to Stop: If you can delegate your email, get someone else to cover it and tell them to call you if there’s a message from Joe Bloggs. Alternatively, look into a service such as Away Find which will alert you if an email from a specified person arrives.

Reason #4: You’re Procrastinating

Maybe you’re struggling with that report you need to finish. Perhaps you’re supposed to be writing an essay and you can’t focus. Or you’ve told yourself you’ll work on that novel you keep talking about, but it’s harder than you thought.

Whatever the excuse, the result is the same: you end up telling yourself that you’ll just quickly check your emails … and then the next hour gets spent writing replies, reading newsletters and chuckling over amusing jokes that your friend has sent.

How to Stop: When you know you want to focus, set a timer. (I like e.ggtimer.) Tell yourself that you won’t check email, or play around on Twitter, or read web comics, or whatever, until that timer goes off. You’re going to stay on task.

Reason #5: You’re Hoping for a “Reward”

In psychology experiments on rats, the little critters get much more hooked on pulling a lever for food when the lever only sometimes drops pellets for them. And, though I’m sure you’re smarter than a rat, you’ll probably have experienced a similar fixation yourself if you’ve ever gambled (even for fun). The uncertainty of whether or not there’ll be a pay-off keeps you hooked.

Emails are like that. Sometimes, you log into your inbox and you’ve got a lovely email from a grateful customer, or a long, cheerful letter from a distant friend, or a quick love note from your partner. It really brightens up your day.

So when you’re feeling a bit down, you log into your email because you’re hoping there’ll be a goodie there for you. It doesn’t matter that there usually isn’t – the randomness of it makes it even more compelling.

How to Stop: Find other ways to get that feel-good factor. For instance, you might print out any particularly glowing emails from customers and keep them pinned to the noticeboard behind your desk.

Why do you keep checking emails, even when you’re supposed to be concentrating? We all have a bunch of excuses … but what’s the real reason? And how can you stop?

Written on 6/1/2010 by Ali Hale. Ali writes a blog, Aliventures, about leading a productive and purposeful life (get the RSS feed here). As well as blogging, she writes fiction, and is studying for an MA in Creative Writing. Photo Credit: xJasonRogersx
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